Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits

Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits

by Benjamin Piekut


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Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits by Benjamin Piekut

In Experimental Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut takes the reader into the heart of what we mean by “experimental” in avant-garde music. Focusing on one place and time—New York City, 1964—Piekut examines five disparate events: the New York Philharmonic’s disastrous performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis; Henry Flynt’s demonstrations against the downtown avant-garde; Charlotte Moorman’s Avant Garde Festival; the founding of the Jazz Composers Guild; and the emergence of Iggy Pop. Drawing together a colorful array of personalities, Piekut argues that each of these examples points to a failure and marks a limit or boundary of canonical experimentalism. What emerges from these marginal moments is an accurate picture of the avant-garde, not as a style or genre, but as a network defined by disagreements, struggles, and exclusions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520268517
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/04/2011
Series: California Studies in 20th-Century Music Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Benjamin Piekut is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Cornell University.

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Experimentalism Otherwise

The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits

By Benjamin Piekut


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94842-6


When Orchestras Attack!

John Cage Meets the New York Philharmonic

They turn things away from music, and from any professional attitude toward music, to some kind of a social situation that is not very beautiful. —John Cage, interview in Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, 75

The date was Sunday, February 9, 1964, and the New York Philharmonic had just performed Vivaldi's "Fall" from The Four Seasons, followed by Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. The audience returned from intermission to hear the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, deliver one of his famous concert talks from the podium. The lengthy address—it lasted over eleven minutes —perhaps indicated his anxiety concerning what was about to unfold. He began, "This week we are presenting the last group of avant-garde works in this series," and was answered by a grateful round of applause from the audience. "This may be good news to some of you, and not so good to others." He was referring to the four programs that had been presented in the previous month in a series titled "The Avant-Garde," which had included works by Ligeti, Xenakis, Varèse, and others. Each program had been performed four times, and this was to be the final performance of the fifth and last program. Bernstein cautioned the audience that this was probably "the most avant-garde" presentation of the entire series, for the works to come—John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis, Morton Feldman's ... Out of "Last Pieces," and Earle Brown's Available Forms II, for Orchestra Four Hands—all employed aleatoric techniques in their composition or performance. "Uh, this is very serious, and this so-called aleatoric aspect of today's new music has come in for more comment, excitement, controversy, and speculation than any other aspect.... It ranges from the most serious possible intention and execution to the most tricky, antimusical kind of Dadaism. We have tried ... to choose only works that can be identified as serious in intention, and genuinely adventurous in seeking new paths of music-making."

Bernstein wryly noted the "psychological adjustment" the members of the orchestra had undergone during the previous week in learning how to perform these indeterminate works, and also explained to his audience the difference between chance operations, which use randomness in the course of composition but arrive at a score that is fixed, and indeterminacy, which integrates elements of chance into the moment of performance itself. As an example of the former, Bernstein conducted a few measures of a composition that had been generated by "a computing machine from London." Called "Pegasus" and developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the computer had written a work "based on arbitrary and random selections" from a twelve-tone row that had been provided it. When the woodwinds finished performing the excerpt (which had been arranged for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), Bernstein quipped, "It's not bad!" To illustrate the concept of indeterminacy—for Bernstein, this meant music with no predetermined material at all, and only the "slightest, most spontaneous control of its evolvement"—the orchestra improvised. "Now here's the New York Philharmonic's Improvisation No. 1, which has never been played, and will never again be played," he announced, receiving a roar of laughter in response. At the conclusion of the improvisation, which lasted a little more than ninety seconds, Bernstein commented, "I thought that was very nice." And perhaps sensing that the audience was not taking this seriously at all, he added, "And also, very serious."

Bernstein was struggling. Although he appeared to be doing his best to give these works a fighting chance in the context of Philharmonic Hall and its subscription audience accustomed to Beethoven and Brahms, Bernstein had little artistic or philosophical sympathy for Cage and his associates. In trying to elucidate the principles of chance and indeterminacy, he had settled upon the culturally predominant musical form of spontaneity in the postwar United States—improvisation. "Its true significance lies in the identification of the performers with the creative act, the participation by the orchestra in the actual composing of the music," he stated. While this choice speaks volumes about the high cultural profile of jazz during these years, it was not the best choice for explaining Cage's music, which in the case of Atlas allowed relatively little participation in the compositional act by the performers. Indeed, as Bernstein had to admit in introducing the piece, "[T]his is not only chance music—by any means, since every note the orchestra plays has been written down by the composer. Therefore, it's the very opposite of the improvisation we just made."

The ensuing disastrous performance of Atlas Eclipticalis has become a minor legend for those interested in Cage's life and work. In an interview twenty years later, Cage did not mince words when it came to describing the Philharmonic: "They are a group of gangsters.... They do everything wrong on purpose, not to make fun of something, but to ruin it. They get in mind criminal ideas, artistically criminal ideas. They are vandals. The moment they can ruin a piece, they are delighted.... They also have tenure; you can't throw them out. Their job is secure. Therefore, they can act any way they like. They're not like children; the L.A. Orchestra is like children. The New York orchestra is like grownups who intend to be bad. They are criminals."

This meeting interests me because of its importance in establishing Cage's bona fides as a radical avant-garde artist. By 1964, he had certainly dealt with his share of unsympathetic performers and antagonistic audiences, but this was the most prestigious engagement of his career, and the poor treatment he reportedly received would feature in his interviews and conversations for years to come. This story of a well-intentioned experimentalist encountering a curmudgeonly old institution has also proven irresistible for musicians sympathetic to Cage, as well as to his critical commentators. Though powerful, such an easy narrative of abuse and ignominy has served to obscure many of the fascinating aspects of this encounter—the reputations of Cage and the Philharmonic at the time, the formidable musical challenge of Atlas Eclipticalis itself, the different understandings of choice, chance, and sound held by the composer and his performers, and the political valences of indeterminacy and its apparent enemy, the symphony orchestra. Most of all, I revisit this conflict because it has thus far been a univocal retelling, based entirely on the words of Cage. Every published mention of the encounter derives from Cage's statements on the matter in a few interviews over the years, or from Calvin Tomkins's very long New Yorker profile of the composer, based on interviews with Cage, which appeared in November 1964 and was reprinted with light editing in The Bride and the Bachelors in 1965.6 Nearly all subsequent accounts that appear in print repeat what is found in Tomkins's essay.

But Cage was just one witness among the over one hundred who were present and implicated in this story. Given that the rhetoric of experimentalism has placed emphasis on the creative role of the performer in presenting this music, it is strange that the voices of these musicians have been entirely absent as conarrators of the encounter. One can attribute this absence to the path that Cage scholarship has taken to achieve legitimacy and respect in the academy, namely through emphasizing the composer's more traditional and conservative qualities as a composer at the expense of the truly ruptural possibilities inherent in his work. Through listening to these alternate voices, one can develop a description of Cage and Atlas Eclipticalis that is productively remote from the themes of these studies, an alien viewpoint that significantly decenters the composer as the sole narrator and owner of the last word.

Cage often expressed his preference for dealing with crowds as a multiplicity of individuals rather than as a unitary mass. For Cage, group formation was the evidence of a hierarchical power that he explicitly sought to evacuate from his work by creating nonfocused, nonlinear compositions that could be performed without leaders. The political associations of this work are most commonly labeled "anarchist." I've tried to honor Cage's preference for atomistic individuals here (and hold him to it) by speaking with the living musicians and Philharmonic administrators from the 1964 season as a set of individuals with their own tastes, opinions, and philosophies of sound and music.

Although Cage's attempt to take his model of musical anarchism into the traditional concert hall can be regarded as a failure, the break it established (or highlighted) between American experimentalism and the cultural institutions of the Old World would serve him well as he became increasingly interested in social and political concerns. When he later wrote, "The masterpieces of Western music exemplify monarchies and dictatorships. Composer and conductor: king and prime minister," Cage was clearly implying that his music stood opposed to these hierarchical systems; he did not compose "masterpieces of Western music," and if you needed proof, he seemed to be saying, look no further than his disastrous engagement with the New York Philharmonic. It has thus become a truism in Cage studies that the composer's music offers a liberatory politics.

In the alternative reading presented in this chapter, I argue that this contentious performance of Atlas—and the way it has been retold by Cage and his supporters—reveals a surprising political dynamic. Although he has been ceaselessly portrayed as a radical artist who challenged the prevailing social order, Cage appears as a far more conventional figure in the following analysis, which I base on the concrete reality of actually existing experimentalism rather than the idealism of aesthetic explications. In fact, what most clearly emerge in this story are the themes of liberalism, that hegemonic political formation of Western modernity: autonomy, choice, the will to reason, justice as fairness, and small government.

With the term liberalism, I refer most of all to the political philosophy—ranging from John Locke to John Rawls—that prizes individual liberty and advocates state power only to the extent that it is necessary to guarantee the freedom of individuals on an egalitarian basis. (The term has also acquired a separate but related meaning in economic thought, in which competition and free trade are supported by minimal state intervention. The hallmarks of economic liberalist subjectivity—competitiveness, entrepreneurialism, accumulation, and so on—are largely absent from Cage's worldview.) A liberal political order, Wendy Brown clarifies, may harbor either liberal or socialist economic policies. Furthermore, "[I]t may lean more in the direction of maximizing liberty (its politically 'conservative' tilt) or maximizing equality (its politically 'liberal' tilt) but in contemporary political parlance, it is no more or less a liberal democracy because of one leaning or the other." 8 In other words, though one might quibble over whether Cage in his musical politics favored liberty or equality (I think there was considerable slippage between the two), the broad outlines of his work hew closely to the mainstream of political thinking in the United States and Europe.

I will avoid the term neoliberalism, which can be described as the dissemination of free-market values to all global institutions and social action, a regime emerging in the decades following the breakdown of the Bretton Woods Agreements in 1971. Neoliberalism is generally thought to combine both political and economic meanings of liberalism. According to this theory, the spread of free-market capitalism brings with it democratic political institutions and erodes religious, ethnic, and nationalist solidarities. Because I don't believe that Cage's work demonstrates the rational calculus of profitability characteristic of economic liberalism, I am not convinced that neoliberalism is the best frame for understanding his musical politics. Nonetheless, two elements of neoliberal ideology seem apropos. First, political and economic governance in neoliberalist thought is framed as a matter of technocratic management, removing it from the contested sphere of ideological conflict (the much-maligned "end of history" thesis). Such was Cage's understanding of the social philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, whom Cage praised as an "apolitical" problem-solver of the highest order. Second, the composer's statements on the coexistence of different traditions, musics, or individuals exhibit a rhetoric of "tolerance" that, Wendy Brown explains, has emerged as a key term in neoliberal discourse. I will return to both of these points in greater detail.

For the most part, my interest in the political models of indeterminacy owes to the enthusiasm for this topic shared by Cage and his supporters. I want to show that if one is interested in Cage's musical politics, then one should examine what actually happened in the performance of his works. And, if one actually examines the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis in 1964, then one will find a musical model of liberalism, perhaps unexpectedly. At the same time, though, my argument is particularly inspired by the work of philosophers and critics who contend that the "freedom of choice" ideology of liberalism in fact masks a meta-operation of power that defines the terms through which those choices can be made. The successful performance of Cagean indeterminacy in the 1960s, I argue, likewise depended upon a performer who had already internalized the expectations of the composer, significantly undermining Cage's well-known goal of accepting the unforeseen. From this perspective, Cage's work evidences a peculiar status as both model and mirror—a mock-up of utopian anarchism and register of hegemonic liberalism.

* * *

A closer look at the score of Atlas Eclipticalis reveals the many challenges it posed for performers. Each of its eighty-six parts is unique, but all consist of four large pages divided horizontally into five systems (see music example 1). Time is measured spatially across the page, and each system is marked with four arrows that point first up, then right, then down, and then left. These directions correspond to the motions of the conductor, who mimics the operation of a clock. Cage describes it in his directions: "A system equals at least 2 minutes,—preferably more. (Extend the time to the point where the presence of silence is felt.) The conductor, however, performs a single clock cycle for each system. At 0", 30", and 60" he makes changes of arm, at 15" and 45" changes of palm. From the last 30" to the end at 60" he uses both arms, fingers touching at the conclusion." 14 Each musician judges when to play a particular note or group according to where it is positioned spatially in relation to these four cardinal points.

Because Cage determined pitch content by tracing a star map he discovered while in residence at Wesleyan University in 1961, he needed to alter the conventional staff to allow a separate vertical position for each possible pitch (rather than a shared vertical position for B[??] and B[flat], for example). Thus, Cage's modified bass clef has extra space between the top two lines (where F# sits just above the second staff line, G[??] is dead-center in the space, and G# hangs just below the top line of the staff) and the bottom two. The pitches specified in the score exceeded the twelve pitch classes, however. In his performance instructions for the Philharmonic performances, Cage writes: "Conventional pitches are marked sharp, flat, or natural. The absence of such signs means that the tones to be played are not at conventional points. They are as they appear to be in the space, more or less sharp, more or less flat. Microtonality."

The sound events themselves consist of either single notes (which are quite rare in the score) or groups, which Cage referred to as "aggregates" or "constellations." These aggregates consist of up to ten pitches joined by a squiggly line; they do not necessarily appear in a straight vertical arrangement, and Cage notes that "within [each] aggregate[,] space need not refer to time. Individual tones of an aggregate may appear in any succession." Duration is noted for each constellation in one of three ways. First, a pair of numbers might appear above a constellation; the first indicates how many notes out of the whole group should be played with as short a duration as possible ("as though it were a splinter of sound"), while the second represents the number of notes that can be played with a longer duration. Second, a fermata indicates that all of the notes in the group are to be played with a longer duration, but no longer than one bow length or one breath. Third, the absence of numbers or a fermata means that all of the notes are to be sounded as short as possible. The player is free to combine tones from a group into chords or multiphonics whenever possible.

Cage's desires about the general sound of the piece may be divined through various indications in the performance notes. He did not want individual musicians to project anything resembling a melody, stating outright that "melodic lines are not produced by the players individually." 17 He tried to ensure against this by specifying that a silence should occur between tones, even those in the same aggregate. He also wanted the work to be generally quiet. Loudness of each tone is indicated by its relative size, and Cage goes out of his way in the instructions for individual parts to point out that most of the notes in the piece are small, and thus should be played softly. He also ruled out special techniques like ponticello or flutter-tonguing, and explicitly forbade any "extraordinary" tone production. Although he allowed the repetition of individual notes within an aggregate, Cage asked that the duration of the repeated note vary from short to long or vice versa. Each of these specifications indicate that, although he used chance operations to determine pitches and temporal placement, Cage nonetheless took steps to ensure a quiet, sparse, nonmelodic, and varied texture.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: What Was Experimentalism? 1

1 When Orchestras Attack!: John Cage Meets the New York Philharmonic 20

2 Demolish Serious Culture!: Henry Flynt Meets the New York Avant-Garde 65

3 October or Thermidor?: The Jazz Composers Guild Meets New York 102

4 Murder by Cello: Charlotte Moorman Meets John Cage 140

Epilogue: Experimentalism Meets (Iggy) Pop 177

Notes 199

Works Cited 251

Index 273

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"Objective, insightful prose"—All About Jazz

"Experimental Otherwise crafts a surprisingly strong narrative."—Skyscraper

"This is an important book, and should be part of every academic music library."—Notes (Music Library Assoc)

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